Nancy Barnes: A behind-the-scenes look at decisionmaking

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES
  • Star Tribune
  • March 27, 2010 - 5:24 PM

In the fall of my first year at the University of Virginia, a fellow freshman committed suicide by hanging himself out his dorm window.

I was a 17-year-old reporter at the student newspaper, and I was assigned to write about it. We ran the story, with a photo of sheets wagging in the wind, on the front page.

The next day, I received a phone call from the dean of students, begging me and my editors not to do that again. The suggestion of suicide is a powerful force, the dean told me. It could encourage other students who might be stressed and depressed to think of suicide as a solution to their problems. It was my first confrontation with the responsibility that comes with the power of the press, and it was a lesson that I still go back to, more than three decades later, when confronted with a story on suicide.

The power of the press is the power to influence, and we need to take great care with how we wield that influence, especially with issues of life and death.

Ever since that event, I have questioned every story about suicide, especially if it is suggested for the front page. At my student newspaper that year, we discussed guidelines for how to cover student suicides. They were remarkably similar to the ones we have today at the Star Tribune. We restrict ourselves to suicide stories that truly involve news, such as those of public figures or those that occur in highly public places or those that document significant trends. So when a reporter brought us a story on the hidden problem of suicide among the elderly, we debated for weeks how to present that story. Would we put it on the front page? How would we design it? When would we run it?

The first decision, to run it on this Sunday's front page, was made with care. Several editors read the story and talked about the numbers that documented the trend and the message the story delivered. It clearly pointed to an issue that Americans need to come to grips with as society ages. As one source in the story said, we often put old people out to pasture, and that leads to depression and questions of self-worth. In many ways, the issues this story raises are similar to those raised in the series we ran late last year about deaths resulting from falls in nursing homes. We're all going to be old one day; how do we want to be treated?

We also wanted to make sure this story didn't run too soon after other stories related to suicide trends, and we knew it couldn't run on Easter Sunday.

The final issue, of how to treat it on the front page, was debated over the course of several weeks. Would we give it the dominant display treatment in the middle of the page, to provoke our readers to think deeply about it, or would that be in poor taste? Our front-page designer, Colleen Kelly, drew up one version of the page with the story front and center, and we discussed how we thought readers might react. This was an elegantly written story about an issue we thought was important to bring to light; it would also be simply depressing for many readers. For Catholic readers, we knew it would raise troubling questions about sin and redemption. Perhaps it was unfair to smack readers in the face with this.

Ultimately, however, it was a subjective call, one that relied on instinct. The final decision, as you can see today, was to move the story to the bottom of the page in a slightly quieter treatment.

I tell you all this because I want you to know that however uncomfortable this story (and others like it) may be for readers, we put a lot of thought and discussion into deciding how to bring it to you.

We offer this story in the hope that it will influence action in only the healthiest of ways, by fostering a discussion about how we help the loved ones in our life age with grace and dignity rather than depression and despair.

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